Mom enrolled only me at Saint Clare’s, a Catholic parochial school, two blocks from Washington Elementary and Santa Clara Intermediate/High, public schools that my brothers attended.
Baptism, according to Catholic Church tenets, leaves an indelible mark on one’s soul. The nuns inculcate catechism lessons etched one on my mind.
The second sacrament after Baptism, First Communion, is a major Catholic event. For Saint Clare’s students it occurred during second grade when students are seven to eight-year-olds, the age they attained the ability to reason and sin or not.
Requirements for First Communion were a soul cleansed of sin by a priest’s confession, memorization of the Our Father and Hail Mary prayers and knowing the ten Commandments. We also leaned God was a Trinity, three in one, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit My wonderful second-grade teacher, Sister Mary Joseph, was kind and could explain complicated religious concepts in second grade eloquence.
With trenchant logic, she explained the God’s Trinity is within us. God the Father was in our mind, God the Son, Jesus, our heart and God the Holy Spirt our soul. When we received Holy Communion, they became one with us.
She introduced the concept of good and evil actions and how we must choose good. To help us pick good over evil, we each had our personal guardian angel, sent by God The angel also protected us from harm and to ensured we were never alone. When we prayed, our angel, carried our message to God by wings, a form of special delivery before the internet.
There was, however, Satan, a fallen angel lurking about tempting us by tricks to pick evil. The two vied for our soul and we’d need to listen to our Guardian angel, not the devil.
She described the Blessed Virgin Mary as super Mom, someone who we could always call on in a pinch, calls I frequently made later in life. Heaven was filled with saints, each with a unique assist position for things which might afflict us. If prayed to, like an attorney, they’d eloquently plead our case before God in their troubleshooting specialty.
Other, more sophisticated, theological aspects were also introduced. Good and evil, heaven and hell and praying had been introduced in first grade. Sins, in second grade, were divided into mortal and venal, or felony versus misdemeanor. Purgatory was a temporary sentence in hell where venial un-repented sins were burned off before Peter, God’s gate keeper let you pass big house, heaven.
I liked the purgatory concept. A younger brother needed temporary burn time for teasing me and being a pest.
Limbo was where unbaptized babies who died went. When I asked what limbo was like. The good nun described it as a nursery. I asked what happened when they got older but was told they never grew up, were kept comfortable, well-fed and had their diapers changed. I wasn’t keen on this concept thinking someone, possibly me, got stuck in perpetuity feeding them and changing their diapers, something I’d done for my youngest brother.
Hell was the big news. It was operated by devils who horribly tortured those who died in mortal sin for all eternity.
While Mom, I and my brothers were baptized, Dad wasn't. I asked if he was going to hell as Limbo was out due to his age but she did a theological leap and explained, by being a good person, he was baptized, via time and action, as were all good non-Catholics. I don't know if this was true theologically, but it satisfied me. I still worried, however, because Dad wasn’t always good.
She also versed us in the 10 commandments to ensure they weren’t just rote memorizations. I can still recite them:
- I am the Lord your God. You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.
- You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
- Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day.
- Honor your father and your mother.
- You shall not kill.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
- You shall not covet your neighbor's wife.
- You shall not covet your neighbor's goods.
The first was easy enough; Mom and I attended Mass when required, so we were covered. I worried about Dad who never went to church and those not Catholic. Sister Mary Joseph explained they were just confused and God, in His justice, forgave and accepted them if they were good. When I asked.
“God’s a man?”
She winked and replied.
“No, His is just a pronoun, God is everything, he, she, it, male, female, everything.”
The second was another easy one, except again I worried again about Dad. He cursed in Chinese if he had bad luck or stubbed his toe. His curses, however, were explained by the good nun, as against a Chinese pagan god not covered in commandment one.
The third was easy, kind of a repeat of number one. Again, I feared for the rest of the family and others I knew who didn’t go to Mass on Sundays. I didn’t want to be in heaven with Mom the only one from my family. The kind sister said not to worry.
“They don’t sin because they don’t know better.”
This caused a flash of heresy.
“Sister, is it better not to know too much?”
“No, my dear girl, if you know God, you are closer to God.”
Not wanting to pursue this further, I accepted Dad and my siblings would be in heaven with me but at a little distance from the center of action, yet still close enough to visit.
Number four was the big one. I worked hard on it and did what Mom asked. Dad was an easy pass. He never asked me to do anything.
Five was a no brainer, I’d never kill anyone, not even a bird with a BB gun like my brothers. When I asked about war, the good nun said, killing then, was only for people God wanted dead.
Six and nine were confusing as I didn’t understand the details referred to. When questioned a bit, she explained adultery as kissing or hugging when not married and nine was when a married person wanted to take someone other than their spouse, kind of like stealing.
Seven, eight and ten were simple don’ts, don’t lie, steal or want to steal. I never lied except when Mom told me to tell salesmen she wasn’t home when she was. This was explained as not really lying because Mom was not home to that person.
While ten crossed my mind a few times, especially at Christmas and birthday parties when a girl got a present, I wanted, I never stole
The ten Commandments were a little more complicated than when first read and covered some things not understood. I didn’t fret over the details, accepted Sister Mary Joseph’s clarifications, memorized the required prayers and the ten commandments until I could repeat them by number, out of sequence.
When saying the Hail Mary prayer, I didn’t understand “Immaculate Conception” or even “Virgin” but she explained these simply meant Mary was pure, without sin and I put them down as additional titles like Blessed.
To this day, I mentally talk to Sister Mary Joseph. She explains my complicated moral dilemmas and reconciles what I’ve done and need to do to get me back into God’s grace.
With one more memorization, I was ready for my First Confession, memorized what to say to the priest at confession. It was simple enough, as tested on the good sister, who was my first confessor. She was one who I could tell all to except she couldn’t wipe the sins off as she wasn’t a priest.
In response to the priest’s introduction,
“Bless you child, is this your first confession?”
My response was.
“Yes, father this is my first confession.”
“What are your sins?”
“I disobeyed my mother and did not do the dishes when first asked. I also wish I had a Schwinn bicycle like other girls.”
The priest in response would mete out the appropriate penance and I’d be free of sin after I performed my punishment. It worked. When I left the priest’s confessional with a penance of three Hail Mary’s, a great feeling of relief swept me. I crossed myself, quickly recited my penance, re-crossed myself and was sparkling clean before God.
Mom and I made my First Communion outfit. When the big day arrived, Dad said I looked beautiful, a little bride he called me. He gave me five dollars. I doubled down on good deeds and gave each brother a dollar. Dad also gave me a rabbit’s foot with a brass metal case holding the stump on a little chain. He said it was for good luck by his deity.
"Shu, always keep this with you. Often in life, we need a backup. Sometimes you lose. Pet it when that happens to make you feel better and have good luck return."
My First Communion was the only time Dad went to church until I married. I was so proud he was there with Mom. I carried the rabbit’s foot to the altar with me and in life. It’s my talisman and I’ve petted it often.
Sunday, the boys and girls were segregated and assembled on the church steps for photo ops. Mom brought her little Kodak. When the bells rang, we were marched in, boys first filling the front pews, then us girls. The boys were dressed in little suits or attired with a white shirt, tie, and corduroy pants. They were not the center of attention. We girls, in our first communion outfits, were the big act.
We stood, sat and kneeled through the Latin service until the altar boy rang the bells announcing the transubstantiation as the Eucharist host became the flesh of Jesus Christ and the wine His blood. We kneeled, back straight, with aching knees, waiting for the start of communion service and Sister Mary Joseph to signal our pew to the altar.
When she reached my pew, I rose, kept my hands together in prayer supplication, and followed the procession to the altar, relieved my knees finally got a break. At the marble altar railing, I knelt with hands reverently in prayer position upon the starched linen railing cover, knees again sore. As the priest approached, I opened my mouth wide and extended my tongue. The priest plucked a host of Jesus Christ from the gold chalice, held it between his thumb and index finger, crossed it before my face and gently laid it on my stretched tongue as he blessed me in Latin.
With God within, I bowed my head, crossed myself, rose and walked back to my pew with hands in prayer, filled with God’s Trinity. I was, careful not to let the Eucharist host touch my teeth and let it slowly dissolve on my tongue as told by the good sister. She’d explained, God didn’t like to get chewed up before entering one’s body. Kneeling in the pew, a wonderful feeling of joy filled me. My soul was in a shroud of light. God the Father, Jesus His only begotten Son and the Holy Spirit were united with me. My knees no longer ached.
Holy Communion is a mystical and emotional experience those not Catholic cannot comprehend. Thereafter, I loved going to Communion Mass and racked up a slew of plenary indulgences, Catholic Church get out of purgatory cards, much needed later in life.
In addition to receiving communion, I loved to hear and sing Mass choir music, (Gloria in Excelsis Deo, (Latin for "Glory to God in the highest") and Kyrie Eleison, (Greek for "Lord have mercy"). Even the Gregorian chant was beautiful to my ears. With my atypical contralto singing voice, the nuns put me in the school choir as a semi-star.
In grade school, with the sisters urging, I decided to be a nun. Dad laughed and said I would be a penguin, but Mom encouraged me and prayed it would happen.
On the top of my school papers, I initialed J M J, for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph each page dedicated to the Holy Family. In my little purse, I carried a Saint Teresa's holy picture as my role model. She died a virgin rather than be raped. I also wore a Saint Christopher's medal which ensured I would have a chance to make a last confession and save my soul before I died.
The school nuns emphasized death was our fate, a fate drilled into us that could happen any second. The eminent danger of nuclear attack was used to convince us with school air raid drills.
It was explained with Moffett Naval Air Base nearby, we were part of a big X on a Russian atomic bomb map. Periodically the air raid siren would suddenly wail to let us know we were under attack. The fifty-plus students in each class marched in strict, doomed silence, under the direction of the nuns into the corridor. There, we formed long columns in the crowded hallway, crouched on our knees, put our foreheads on the floor, covered our heads with our arms and waited to be blown to smithereens.
As the air raid siren continued to wail, the stern eyes of the nuns watched to ensure no head rose, an infraction resulting in an immediate rap on the head with a nun’s wooden clicker.
After the fire marshal was satisfied with our response, the siren would wail a wobble, all clear. This meant we had been bypassed for nuking, the Russian bomber was shot down or the drill was a test, the latter always the case. We arose and nosily marched back to our desks, impressed with our good fortune of again avoiding death by an atomic bomb.
In the classroom, the nuns used the air raid drills as reminders of our potential sudden death and the danger to our souls if tainted by mortal sin. We were immersed in the idea, life on earth is fleeting but life after death is eternal. If we tripped up in this life, were caught dead with even a single unconfessed mortal sin, the punishment was eternal hell. The good news was a priest’s confession, no matter how bad the sin, immediately cleared the slate.
Hell, and its opposite, heaven were constant classroom themes. Pictures were used for religious teaching reinforcement. In the classrooms, nuns kept a large roll of fantasied colored pictures on wood pictorial frames. Setting it up in front of the class the desired picture could be flipped to for the class to see.
The vivid pictorial roll consisted of winged angels looking blissfully down from clouds, saints and martyrs, some horribly tortured, the stages of Jesus's life including crucifixion, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the fate of sinners caught in mortal sin at death.
These sinners were pictured in hell, roasting over burning sulfur, gnawed on but never eaten by wild beasts, and my favorite, cooking in a giant boiling pot, each suffering their punishment for eternity. I didn't question the nun's punishment orthodoxy of hell but did think eternity in hell for eating meat on Friday too severe. I rationalized the punishment was for being stupid. How could anyone wantonly eat meat on Friday, our family loved seafood.
In school, I was Miss Lin or Elizabeth to the nuns. I was Liz, Lizzy, Lizard, slant eyes and eventually Cobra to classmates. While tagged “slant eyes” I never experienced racial prejudice that I recognized. Many got physical trait names. “Slant eyes” was like “big ears”, “whitey”, shorty, etc. In fifth grade I’d made the mistake of sticking out my extendable tongue in reply to “slant eyes”. Thereafter I was nicknamed Cobra. I tried to ignore this tag, kept my tongue in but it stuck. Cobra followed me into high school and eventually I incorporated it as part of my persona.
Saint Clare’s racial mix blended from fair blond-white to dark chocolate brown. There were Portuguese, Mexicans, even a few Italians darker than me. In school, we were taught, all humans are part of God’s Mystical Body, each an integral piece of equal importance to the whole. I, however, thought myself part of the Mystical Body’s brain, my rationalization of superiority.
In the eighth grade, we learned the evils of other faiths starting with Martin Luther and his church door list of orthodoxy errors. Judaism was lightly skipped over as old news and Islam never mentioned except for the liberation of Granada from the Moors when Spain was at last free.
One Protestant heresy perked my interest, John Calvin’s Presbyterianism tenet of predestination. God, knowing all, knows all, including what we did and what we will do. If God knows everything I will do before I do it, it means what I do is predetermined. There is, therefore no free will. None, even sister Mary Joseph, could not give me a satisfactory explanation of our having free will if God knows everything.
When we lived in rural farmhouses, I sneaked on the public-school bus with my brothers, hopped off with them at their school and walked the two blocks to Saint Clare’s. After school, I traipsed back over, got in the school bus line, clambered on in the rush with others and returned home with my brothers. None revealed my stowaway status but in hindsight, I suspect the bus driver knew.
Public school provided another perk not available at parochial school. It served a cafeteria hot lunch for a quarter. To cash in, I slinked away from Saint Clare's when the noon yard watch nun looked the other way and ambled to the public-school cafeteria. My cheap hot meal stratagem, however, was complicated by segregated cafeteria service periods for public grade and high school students. My lunchtime was when the high school students were served.
At the cafeteria, I looked down, squeezed in line, took my stainless-steel tray with food place indentations, slid it along the meal line and the old women servers plopped food on. They never gave me a second glance and my quarters were accepted without questions by the cashier. I carried my tray to a vacant chair, gulped my meal down in unmolested silence then scurried back to Saint Clare's.
Again, in hindsight, my stealth cafeteria meals probably fooled none. They dished out the food and took my quarter without care where I went to school. By sixth grade, my older brother was in high school during mealtime and looked out for me.
Attending parochial school and our frequent rural house re-locations made me comfortable as a loner. As a bus stowaway, I lacked common school attendance with those on the bus, missed walking to and from school with Saint Clare's students and my sneaked cafeteria meals limited my lunchtime with them.
Parochial school holidays were different than those at public schools. They got out the week before Christmas and Easter, we the week after. My classmates didn’t visit my house due to distance and if they would want to, I’d not invite them due to my home turf embarrassment.
Once ensconced in our Tropicana Village home, I left early in the morning on the city bus line and got home late, a stranger to neighbor kids. At home, I retreated to my tiny bedroom to escape family din. The bedroom was my sanctuary where I studied and fantasized about a world of my own, a world where I was queen.
While boy shy, I experienced boy crushes. In eighth grade, I was a secret admirer. He had a Hispanic last name, Castro, but was blond and blue-eyed. I attended his basketball games and cherished his dribbling and basket shots -from the bleachers but never talked to him, afraid of being rejected.
Between thirteen and sixteen, puberty transformed me. Hopscotch and jump rope were abandoned as I sprouted to my full, five-feet seven-inch height, too dark, too skinny and with teeth and lips too big. My younger siblings called me frog or rubber lips due to my full lips before puberty then added bean pole and duck because of my skinny long neck after. Dad and my older brother retorted I was a swan confirming my neck was too long. I kept my lips pursed and my head down between shoulders to compensate.
My breasts developed fuller than expected for skinny me. As they grew, they tingled and ached. In bed at night, cupping them in my hands as I fell asleep, I wondered when they would stop growing. I knew their expansion became noticeable when Dad and my siblings noticed them and then looked away when talking to me.
Alone, without direction, I purchased my first bra and Kotex pad. Mom didn't talk about those “things”. My sex education consisted of misinformed schoolgirl whispers. I was prepared for menstruation from girl gossip. It occurred for me about a year after most of them.
By sixteen, I was fully equipped, to the point some boys whistled or made comments when I walked past. At first, I assumed it was catcalling about my long neck but soon realized my breasts were the object of their attention. Turning brown-red and quickly walking away only encouraged them. It was my first sense of sexual power but I didn’t think of it as such then. Instead, I thought my breasts, like my long neck, were another deformity. I carried my school Pee Che folder in front to avoid boy’s whistles and snickered remarks.
Just before Saint Clare's graduation, the class given an exhaustive examination. It was to determine the “select”, those “chosen” for college prep parochial high schools. Notre Dame was the exclusive, all-girls, Catholic high school in downtown San Jose. Bellarmine, for the boys, was safely miles away near Santa Clara. Entrance was based on the exam, school grades, and probably parental influence. Catholicism also tossed in some of Jesus’s teachings of, “Blessed are the poor”. I suspect, a few were given credit to retain this ideal.
Notre Dame selected me and five others as Saint Clare’s “chosen.” My isolation in grade school ensured good grades. I knew I also aced the test based on the questions. Without parental influence, perhaps Sister Mary Emanuel or the priest who occasional visited Mom played the poverty card for me. I accepted going despite tuition cost because Mom was ecstatic, I was shy of attending public high school, none ever refused the honor of acceptance and I was proud to be among the “chosen”.
Catholic precepts were emphasized and once enrolled at Notre Dame, we were informed some of what was learned in grade school was suitable for children’s minds and we were on a more “intellectual” level of learning about God. The curriculum also included Latin and Greek, exposing us to Roman and Greek classic writers which I enjoyed.
With Notre Dame near Mom's work, we rode the bus together. I earned my tuition and two dimes a day bus fare babysitting and working summers. I made my school uniforms on my little portable singer sewing machine Dad had unexpectedly bought for me for a birthday present. The uniforms were simple enough to make, a checkered long skirt with a white blouse. The homespun marked me as one who couldn't afford a uniform from downtown Hart's Department Store which carried a wide selection of parochial schoolgirl's uniforms.
I was proud to make my own and smugly looked down on girls who couldn’t sew.
Author Notes: Story sets the religious school background for woman who eventually commits adultery.